City delays hiring of probation officer

March 23, 2009

By Warren Kagarise

Officials want more financial information before they consider a proposal to hire a probation officer for the Issaquah Municipal Court.Members of the City Council Services & Operations Committee, who considered the proposal March 19, raised questions about the bid. Officials asked how the city would pay for the position. Councilwoman Eileen Barber questioned whether it would be prudent to hire an officer amid a recession.

Officials budgeted $85,000 for the full-time position in the 2009 city budget as they trimmed costs elsewhere to save money. Court Administrator Lynne Jacobs said the fees paid by people sentenced to probation would pay for the salary, benefits and expenses of the position.

The court, which opened in January 2005, handles misdemeanor cases, as well as traffic and parking infractions. In some cases, lawbreakers are ordered to complete programs as part of their sentences. These steps may include domestic-violence or mental-heath counseling, or treatment for alcohol and drugs.

Criminals are charged fees based on the severity of their crimes.

“The idea being that people who are convicted of a crime would pay for their own probation,” Jacobs said.

Councilman Joshua Schaer, an attorney, said he worried the city could be saddled with the cost related to the probation officer if the court could not generate enough money through fees.

Under the existing two-tier system, less-serious offenders pay the court $100 per year to handle their probation. Serious offenders pay $240. Upper-tier offenders include criminals with serious domestic violence issues and multiple convictions for driving under the influence.

Jacobs proposed fee increases to cover the costs related to a probation officer. The proposal would set fees based on three tiers: Minor criminals would pay $150 per year while offenders in the middle tier would pay $240. Jacobs said the court has not yet proposed the fee for the highest tier. A state statute allows the court to charge up to $100 per month.

Jacobs and a Municipal Court judge monitor about 350 cases. They handle stacks of paperwork each month related to treatment for mental health issues and drug and alcohol problems. A probation officer would help court officials better manage cases, Jacobs said. She mentioned a 2008 incident in which a man died from a drug overdose during probation.

“We did everything we could do with the resources we had,” Jacobs said.

But stronger oversight could help prevent similar tragedies, because offenders would be able to discuss their cases in person on a regular basis, she added.

Services & Operations Committee members questioned whether the officer could start as a part-time employee and then become a full-time employee if the need arose. Jacobs said she would like to have the officer hired by August. The midyear hire would draw less money from the 2009 budget.

Committee members are scheduled to consider an updated probation proposal at their April 16 meeting. Jacobs plans a presentation showing 2008 probation costs.

“I would really like to see a little bit better presentation of financials,” Barber said.

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